South Sudan: 5 key questions answered

On July 9, the Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country. But it is also one of its poorest, joining the ranks of the most underdeveloped nations on earth. Yet with the rich oil deposits within its new borders, South Sudan may be able to overcome the daunting obstacles it faces – if it comes to peaceful terms with its northern neighbor, Sudan.

Here are five frequently asked questions answered:

Juba, South Sudan

1.Why did the Republic of South Sudan secede from the North?

The decision to secede can be traced to the northern Sudanese government's consistent policy of marginalization of the southern part of the country since Sudan became independent in 1956. The people of the South, who are non-Arab, Christian, and animist, have long felt oppressed by their neighbors in the Arab and Muslim North.

The southern liberation struggle led by the late Dr. John Garang called for a unified Sudan "on a new basis," through a representative government that upheld basic rights and respect for Sudan's diverse peoples in the north, south, east, and west of the country. But when the 1983-2005 civil war ended, a signed North-South peace deal granted southerners the right to a self-determination vote after six years.

When that referendum was held last January, nearly 99 percent of southerners voted for secession of the South, rejecting the hope enshrined in the 2005 peace deal: that unity could be made "attractive" to southerners who had suffered for decades under northern rule.

2.Is the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan really over?

It is difficult to predict, but based on the policy of brinkmanship that the ruling parties of the North and South have honed over the past six years – collectively reaching the point of crisis in order to exact concessions from each other – political, if not military, confrontation between the two governments is likely to continue.

Weeks of heavy North-South fighting over the disputed border town of Abyei and in the contested region of South Kordofan killed scores and displaced more than 700,000 people in June, according to the United Nations.

Even if skirmishes end between the two armies along their disputed shared border, which is littered with oil and other resource deposits, proxy politics are likely to keep military tensions high. The southern government has repeatedly accused Khartoum of arming a number of rebel militias active in the oil-producing southern borderlands, allegations the North has repeatedly denied.

Meanwhile, Khartoum levels its own allegations against the South's Army for its rumored links to rebel groups fighting for increased autonomy in Darfur during a nearly decade-long conflict there that some observers have deemed to be a genocide by Khartoum against Darfuri citizens.

3.What are the top challenges facing South Sudan?

As it attempts to build a functioning nation-state, the young southern government faces no shortage of obstacles: illiteracy, poor health care, lack of infrastructure, human rights abuses by the southern military, and developing its oil resources.

Given the sheer scale of the problems, it is hard to know where this government should begin.

Rough estimates from a 2006 government household survey and other UN studies indicate that more than 90 percent of South Sudanese women cannot read or write.

Only 20 percent of southerners will ever receive health care at a clinic or hospital. Farmers cannot get their crops to market due to the profound lack of infrastructure in the Texas-sized territory.

The former guerrilla movement-turned-national army, in charge of maintaining security in a place where many civilians have at least tried to hold onto their war-time guns, stands accused of rights abuses in its recent campaigns to rout out rebel forces opposed to the southern government.

And lest anyone forget, South Sudan is now one of Africa's most oil-rich countries.

Management of the new country's oil sector – and managing to simultaneously diversify the economy away from complete oil-dependency, perhaps via agriculture – will determine much about how strong the foundations of the new state will be.

Experts in national development say it will take at least a generation for the southern government to find its footing as a service-delivering, rights-respecting entity.

4.How will South Sudan's oil wealth likely be spent?

Ideally, the country's oil revenues – which should increase after the North and South reach a settlement on management of their still-shared industry – will be spent addressing the daunting challenges outlined above.

In practice, some of these revenues will likely be squandered as the corruption and nepotism that has blemished the southern government's reputation in its six years of existence takes deeper root in the post-independence period.

5.When will South Sudan be self-sufficient?

Nongovernmental organizations and UN agencies currently provide 80 percent of basic services to south-erners. This will not change in the short term.

Gradual transfer of service delivery from NGOs and the UN to the South Sudanese government will hopefully begin in the coming years.

If it does not, growing discontent from citizens could hurt the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement, which leads the government, and stoke internal violence and insecurity as frustration builds among the most marginalized minority ethnic groups.